FORWARD OPERATING BASE RIPLEY, Afghanistan -- A village elder watches as a convoy filled with Marines and Soldiers pulls up a short distance from his village. He remembers the days of the Soviets and the Taliban, and wonders what the armored warriors want with his village.
Sitting on a mat under the shade of the largest trees in the village, the elder speaks with the one of the Soldiers as he is peppered with questions about the health of his people. As per Afghan custom, tea is served for host and guests, an expression of Afghani hospitality. They discuss drinking water and the condition of the village's livestock. Soon, a truck filled with grain, school supplies and tools pulls up to deliver them to the village.
The elder smiles. The United States is welcome here.
This is the world of the Army Provincial Reconstruction Team currently attached to the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) for operations in Afghanistan's Oruzgan province. The primary conduit for civil military operations in the vicinity of Forward Operating Base Ripley, PRT Tarin Kowt is also working to shape the Afghani perception of the United States by showing and demonstrating concern about the welfare of the Afghan people. This is another way to strengthen reception to the central Afghanistan government too.
"You assist in any way you can," said Army Maj. Alvalee Cook, 486th Civil Affairs Officer. "We try to help the people help themselves."
The Soldiers of civil affairs are the connection between U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and the Afghani people.
"We serve as the liaison between the Army and the civilian population," said Army Sgt. Timothy Post, a Civil Affairs specialist from Poteau, Ok. "We legitimize [U.S. Forces] being here. The people see we're here to help, not just busting in doors."
The PRT supports the population of Afghanistan in two major ways. The first is through infrastructure support. This includes helping find money for roads, schools, wells, and other major projects that would need to be contracted out.
The PRT also provides direct support to the Afghan people who have long suffered at the hands of oppressive regions. Capable of purchasing and distributing supplies for agriculture, education and construction, they are working hard to have an impact on the lives of the Afghan villagers, primarily in rural areas where anti-coaliton forces have long enjoyed support.
During Operation NIGHTINGALE, a joint MEU-Army civil affairs operation, the PRT delivered school supplies for over 400 Afghani children, as well as several hundred pounds of grain and vegetable seed. They also distributed shovels, picks, hammers and other construction materials to several villages. Soccer balls and crank-powered radios also serve to engender good will between coalition forces and the Afghan people.
While out in the villages, Cook and the other soldiers in the PRT will meet with the village elders and leaders to find out what the needs of the village are and if they are able to help. If the PRT is able to help, it will either purchase the supplies directly or contract the work out.
The PRT attempts to keep as much of the money spent on contracts for construction and the purchase of supplies inside Afghanistan. For instance, instead of buying school chairs and tables pre-made from another country, the PRT will attempt to find an Afghan contractor to provide these items, thus infusing currency and jobs into local economies.
As with all missions, the PRT doesn't roll without a little muscle to deter troublemakers. The PRT also consists of a security team, which plays a crucial role in allowing the civil affairs Soldiers to conduct their business with the village elders undisturbed. They also conduct crowd control during medical support missions to keep order during these operations when all the villagers are clamoring for medical assistance.
Seeing the condition of the Afghani people is an eye opener for members of the security team.
"It's like reading the Bible," said Army Pfc. Sid Sikes, a Hilton Head, S.C., native and gunner for 265th Air Defense Artillery, part of the PRT's security team. "It's exactly the way you'd imagine it to be. It baffles the mind that in the West we've come so far and not know it."
The nature of civil affairs keeps them on their toes, but also brings in great rewards.
"It's different than the norm," said Post. "We get to interact with the people. It's instant impact."
The PRT has its roots in the civil affairs missions conducted during the Vietnam War when the phrase "winning hearts and minds" became popular. The PRT will remain in Tarin Kowt and continue to conduct civil affairs missions long after the Marines have left Afghanistan.
The 22nd MEU (SOC) is the core of Task Force Linebacker, and in addition to PRT Tarin Kowt, consists of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), and MEU Service Support Group 22.
For more information on the 22nd MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.